Illinois Public Media News
A legislative panel has voted 8-1 to authorize the state to negotiate health insurance contract extensions through the end of June 2012.
All vendors providing health insurance coverage for state workers, including Urbana-based Health Alliance, will be able to negotiate nine-month extensions following Tuesday's decision by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA). State Senator and COGFA member Mike Frerichs said the extension should provide relief for a lot of people.
"I think for now the legislature has done its part," Frerichs said. "It's now up to the health insurance providers, and the (Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services) to work out the terms of the deal."
Orland Park House Democrat Kevin McCarthy cast the only dissenting vote.
The state health contracts have been operating for the last few months under a 90-day extension that is due to expire at the end of September. A state appellate court recently upheld a Sangamon County judge's ruling, preventing the state from moving ahead with new health contracts for state employees and retirees. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's administration has argued the so-called 'open access' plans will save the state about $100 million a year.
"We are very happy to been given the opportunity to negotiate a longer-term contract to continue serving state workers and their families," Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum said in a statement. "Every day we receive calls from our state members wanting to know if they'll be able to stay with Health Alliance."
But insurers may not get a rate increase from the state over what they're getting currently. In addressing the panel Tuesday, Ingrum compared his provider's rates with that of another provider.
"We are looking at the rate increase and just seeing in this environment to extend a rate from FY 11 to a full year," he said. "If that would be the ultimate terms, it would be a bit unreasonable given the fact that Blue Cross (Blue Shield) got an increase."
Print reports indicate Ingrum is seeking a rate hike of around 5-percent. A company spokeswoman, Jane Hayes, said she understands the state's needs to save money by dropping Health Alliance. However, she said she has a great deal of confidence that Health Alliance will be able to reach a deal with the state.
State Senator Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) praised the vote by COGFA.
"Finally, thousands of central Illinoisans can breathe a sigh of relief," Cultra said in a statement. "We must fix the current process now, so we are not sitting here next May without a permanent solution in place for the 100,000 state workers and retirees who have faced this uncertainty since this process began."
The state is scheduled to argue before a Sangamon County judge later this week to argue whether COGFA has the authority to extend the current health insurance contract. However, Sen. Frerichs said Gov. Quinn's office recently filed a motion to dismiss that case.
Sales of Illinois lottery tickets grew by 3 percent last year to set a new record.
Officials said Monday that sales totaled nearly $2.3 billion. That tops the old record of $2.2 billion, which was set just a year earlier.
Out of that revenue, $690 million was used to support state programs. Education got most of the money, but statewide construction projects got $54 million and $4 million went to causes like research on breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.
The sales figures are from the 12 months that ended on June 30. The total of nearly $2.3 billion amounts to more than $177 for every person in Illinois.
Lottery officials say sales have climbed every year for nine straight years.
Gov. Mitch Daniels says support is growing for a statewide ban on smoking in public places and it has a chance to pass next year.
The Evansville Courier & Press reports Daniels says he wants to see the percentage of adult Hoosiers who smoke drop to 20 percent by the end of his term. A recent report put the state's smoking rate at a historic low of 21.1 percent.
A bill that would have banned smoking in public places statewide failed to pass last session after it was loaded up with exemptions.
Proponents of a statewide smoking ban say it improve Hoosiers' health and the state's economy. Opponents say the marketplace should determine which restaurants or other retailers are smoke-free and which allow people to smoke.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants to link college funding with student performance.
On Friday, he traveled to Western Illinois University's Moline campus to sign legislation designed to allocate state money based on how well students do in the classroom. Quinn says the law will help Illinois better compete in the global economy.
"In order to have a strong economy, you must have great education, including higher education," Quinn said. "Jobs follow brain power. We want to make sure we have plenty of engineers for John Deere and Caterpillar, and for our great agricultural businesses in Illinois."
Quinn says the legislation should boost the number of Illinois adults with college degrees from 41 percent to at least 60 percent by 2025.
Mahomet Republican Chapin Rose and Chicago Democrat Edward Maloney both sponsored the measure, which takes effect January 1st.
Illinois' Senior Senator says a Congressional 'super committee' tasked with finding $1.5 trillion dollars in federal savings over the next 10 years has their work cut out for them.
The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, has until Thanksgiving to come up with a plan, and then sell it to the rest of Congress.
It's unclear where possible budget cuts may happen, but Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said food assistance programs should be preserved.
During a visit Friday morning to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana, Durbin underlined the importance of these services, saying food banks across the state have seen a 50 percent uptick in food assistance requests during the last couple of years. Durbin also pointed out that the Eastern Illinois Foodbank has increased food distribution by 24 percent during the same period.
"My hope is that as we look for ways to cut spending, and we don't do it at the expense of feeding children and families that are struggling," Durbin said. "I hope that we can all agree - both parties can agree - on a good starting point there to preserve the safety net."
The Eastern Illinois Foodbank said last year it gave out 6.8 million pounds of food, with federal commodities making up about a quarter of that stock from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
"It's been a really important program for food banks during the recession," said Cheryl Precious, director of development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. "We're worried about it to say the least."
Precious said the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is anticipating a 50 percent reduction in federal commodities for this upcoming year.
"That's going to significantly impact us," Precious said. "We're going to have to make up that food by purchasing or increasing donations or we're just going to have to get creative about it."
Durbin also emphasized the importance of social safety net programs - like unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and job re-training programs. He said he hopes the country's financial problems and the recent downgrade of the nation's credit rating by Standard and Poors serve as a wakeup call to the 12-lawmakers on the bipartisan deficit reduction committee.
"If they go in with a spirit of bipartisanship and compromise where both sides are willing to give, we can get this resolved," Durbin said. "If they walk into the door with preconceived notions and political positions that are non-negotiable, nothing is going to happen. It's going to fail."
Durbin wouldn't comment on specific programs that should be cut, but he said he would like to see tax breaks for the wealthiest people trimmed back.
"If there's no agreement, we go into automatic cuts in both the defense and veterans side of it, as well as the other non-defense spending," he said. "I don't believe we can rationalize cutting the safety net in America when so many working families life from pay check to paycheck, and many with a paycheck can't make ends meet."
Meanwhile, Illinois' other US senator, Republican Mark Kirk, weighed in on the Congressional committee's task ahead during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Kirk said he does not think there is consensus in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for any tax hikes.
Congress is in recess until after Labor Day. Kirk said the joint commission should start meeting next Monday. He also urged President Obama to recall Congress to get to work on the nation's debt problems.
"Congress should not be in recess right now," Kirk said. "We see tremendous anxiety with the potential of the U.S. to go into recession and one of the greatest ways to restore confidence is, not to have a speech and not to lay out a set of vague principles, but to see the elected representatives of the American people working on entitlement reforms right away."
If the committee fails to meet its Thanksgiving deadline to come up with a plan, or if Congress rejects their proposal, then $1.2 trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts would go into effect. Critics are expressing doubt that the bipartisan panel will overcome its stark political differences.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
Illinois U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk cautioned Congress about a new committee that will fight the federal deficit.
Republicans and Democrats have selected nine of the committee's 12 members. Kirk said he is worried the committee won't be in a position to compromise.
"I worry about this joint commission that it may be too partisan," Kirk said. "One idea that I know will never have a chance would be to have the Democratic leaders to appoint the Republicans and the Republicans leaders appoint the Democrats, so that the people who played best in the sandbox would then take on the work of this joint committee."
Kirk urged President Obama to end the congressional recess so legislators can get the new debt committee ready by Monday.
Congress is not scheduled to return to work until after Labor Day.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Sara Lee Corp. said Thursday that its fiscal fourth-quarter profit fell 41 percent as it continued to sell-off businesses even as revenue rose on strong results from its North American segments and international beverages unit.
The results of the Downers Grove, IL. food company, which is shedding units as it works to split into two businesses, met analysts' expectations, but the company gave fiscal 2012 adjusted earnings and revenue outlooks below Wall Street's estimates. Its stock fell $1.31, or 7.6 percent, to $16 on the news.
Sara Lee's results continue to be affected by its ongoing plan to become leaner by shedding some operations before it splits into two businesses by early next year -- one focused on coffee and the other largely on meat. Just two days ago, Sara Lee said that it will sell its North American refrigerated dough business to Ralcorp for $545 million. Sara Lee said it's planning to realize $180 million to $200 million in costs savings during fiscal 2012 and 2013 as it prepares for the spinoff.
"Our objective of building two simpler, faster and more entrepreneurial businesses is being realized," Executive Chairman Jan Bennink said in a statement. "We have defined the organizational framework for our new companies and are continuing to build and restructure our teams for the future."
Like other food companies, Sara Lee's results were also impacted as it raised its prices to cope with higher ingredient costs. The company has increased prices across nearly all of its product lines and previously announced that it plans to make price increases all year. Sara Lee's leaders have said that they expect a stronger second half of the year as those price hikes take effect and the company releases new products.
During the current quarter, the company's units benefited from the price hikes. Total revenue rose 9 percent to $2.3 billion from $2.11 billion, topping Wall Street's projected $2.28 billion.
North American retail revenue rose 4 percent mostly because of higher prices. Revenue for the North American food service division climbed 9 percent on increased prices and experienced strong sales of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages, pre-sliced pies and cakes and branded meats distributed through convenience stores.
The international beverage unit reported a 14 percent revenue increase partly on higher prices and increased green coffee export sales from Brazil. International bakery revenue fell 8 percent on competition in Spain and difficult economic conditions.
Sara Lee earned $111 million, or 19 cents per share, for the period ended July 2. That's down from $187 million, or 28 cents per share, a year ago. Adjusted earnings from continuing operations were 20 cents per share.
For the year, Sara Lee earned $1.29 billion, or $2.06 per share. That compares with earnings of $506 million, or 72 cents per share, in the previous year. Annual revenue rose to $8.68 billion from $8.34 billion.
Looking ahead, Sara Lee expects fiscal 2012 adjusted earnings of 89 cents to 95 cents per share on revenue of $8.5 billion to $8.75 billion. The guidance excludes the international bakery segment, which the company plans to sell. Analysts predict earnings of $1.07 per share on revenue of $9.35 billion.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
A new report suggests Illinois' rate of home foreclosure fell 3.5 percent between June and July. The RealtyTrac Group said the foreclosure rate is now almost 50 percent lower than last year.
But there is still some bad housing news: a report from the Illinois Association of Realtors said that home prices are actually down 18 percent.
"The thing that we have continued to be fighting over the last several years is consumer confidence....And it was shaken by our budget talks," said Sheryl Grider Whitehurst, president of the IAR.
"So we need to get some stability out there in those marketplaces for people to feel comfortable again to move ahead with other major purchases," Whitehurst continued. "I know we personally had one buyer who backed out of looking at a home because she did receive Social Security checks and she said, 'I don't know if I'm going to receive my checks.'"
Whitehurst said it is best to compare this year's housing market with figures from 2009, not 2010, because buyers in 2010 benefited from a tax credit. The IAR predicts housing prices in the Chicago region will catch up with their 2010 levels in September.
The mayor of Villa Grove says the future of the Douglas County community's downtown remains a question mark after fire destroyed a 100-year old building Wednesday night.
Seventeen different departments fought the blaze, many of them staying throughout the night. There were no injuries. The State Fire Marshall is still investigating the cause. Villa Grove Mayor Thelma 'Boots' Blaney said the building was vacant, and most businesses on the north side of downtown, across Main Street, are open. But she said it will take some time for a local bar, beauty shop, and jewelry store to clean up from smoke and water damage.
Blaney said the firewall around the structures did its job, or the entire block would have been lost. She says those helping out overnight Wednesday motivated each other.
"The businesses just stepped up to the plate," she said. "We have pizzas and all kinds of drinks and ice. People were donating. Businesses were donating. You know, they all just stepped up to the plate, and the firefighters helped them keep going too."
Fire departments helping out included those from St. Joseph, Broadlands, Tuscola, Savoy, Philo, and Comargo.
"Right now, our main concern is getting it cleaned up and the safety of everyone, and trying to go from there," Blaney said. "I mean, it's just like everywhere else, you know, Villa Grove has been struggling. Lord knows what's going to hold up for the future."
Villa Grove Police say the buildings that were destroyed formerly housed the local Moose Lodge and a Chinese restaurant, but the structures had been empty for at least 10 years.
Commonwealth Edison says smart grid technology could save customers more than $2.8 billion over the next 20 years.
ComEd released an analysis Monday from Black & Veatch that puts the cost of installing smart grid as less than or equal to the savings.
Mike McMahan, vice president of Smart Grid and Technology for ComEd, said a rate hike of $3 per customer would cover the cost of the technology, and it would be made up soon after the smart grid was installed.
"We estimate at least $2 of that would be returned to the customer on their bills at the end of the deployment period and there would be an additional $1 in savings associated with fewer outages," he said. "So benefit to the consumer that doesn't pass through the utility."
McMahan said the savings identified in the analysis would come from three major changes. First, the smart grid technology would eliminate manual meter reading, and thus meter reading jobs, because the smart meters would send information directly to ComEd. This would also mean, according to ComEd, more accurate bills and fewer service visits. Secondly, McMahan said smart meters would detect electricity theft and therefore cut down on energy losses. Lastly, McMahan said the new technology would bring enhanced disconnection and reconnection of services, minimizing collection costs during storms, power outages or even when a renter is ending their ComEd service.
Yet all of this rests on the signature of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Earlier this year, legislators in Springfield passed the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act that would authorize rate hikes for both ComEd and Ameren customers to foot the smart grid bill. Quinn has said he would not sign the measure, as he wants power companies, rather than consumers, to pay for smart grid.
The bill doesn't sit well with members of the Citizens Utility Board. Executive Director David Kolata said he supports installing smart grid, but he does not think this bill is the way to do it.
"I think this analysis is further evidence that smart grid would be good investment for consumers -- we do think it's something that will save consumers money in medium and long term," Kolata said. "It's the other parts, though, that are problematic. You have to make sure you get those right. It's serving as Trojan horse for significant regulatory changes that apply to all ComEd's costs -- if it was just smart grid, it would have passed already."
The bill is currently on Gov. Quinn's desk.
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